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Source: FT

Sep 3, 2023

Iran cracks down on dissent as protest movement anniversary looms

Activists say authorities want to discourage gatherings marking the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody

By Najmeh Bozorgmehr

Iran has begun a crackdown on dissent ahead of this month’s first anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody that triggered the country’s biggest protests in more than a decade.

Family members of those killed in the ensuing unrest, as well as political and human rights activists, have in recent weeks been put into custody or pressured not to encourage gatherings to mark a year since her death.

Some academics who backed the protest movement, which morphed into a broad demand from basic freedoms, have also lost their jobs. The reasons have not been officially explained, but analysts linked them to the anniversary.

The 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian was taken from a Tehran street by the morality police on September 16 after being accused of wearing her hijab inappropriately.

Amini’s family have alleged that she was beaten but the authorities say she was not physically assaulted. “It’s crucial for the Islamic republic that September is calm,” said a reformist analyst.

"The authorities think new tensions [around the anniversary] could disrupt the country again,” he added, noting that the regime was particularly anxious about parliamentary elections set for early next year.

More than 300 people were killed during the months-long protests that called for Iran to respect human rights, particularly for women, and for its uncompromising Islamic regime to be replaced with a modern and secular government.

Tens of thousands of people were arrested, including many young Iranians, or suffered injuries at the hands of the security forces. Some protesters were blinded after being shot.

Seven men were later hanged for their role in the unrest. “There could be some protests during the Amini anniversary but we don’t expect anything too big,” said a reformist politician.

“But we might see protests and tensions on university campuses.” Analysts say there was also potential for protests near the graves of those who died and in Kurdish and Baluchi areas of Iran, although no large-scale demonstrations are planned.

Many in Iran believe the battle to force women to wear the hijab has already been lost © Vahid Salemi/AP

Those who joined last year’s movement now face a dilemma over whether — knowing the risks — they take to the streets again.

“On the one hand, I feel heartbroken and can’t tolerate injustice anymore. But on the other hand, it’s dreadful to think of losing your eye or life if you protest,” said Zahra, a 29-year-old PhD student.

Iranian leaders claim last year’s protests were a conspiracy by the US and Israel to topple the regime, and boast of how they foiled the threat. “The enemy works 24/7 to fool our young people and bring them back on to the streets,” Mohammad Mossadegh, deputy judiciary chief, said last month.

Many Iranian women have since Amini’s death stopped wearing the headscarves and long shirts they are obligatory to cover themselves with by law, a radical change that would have been unthinkable before the protests.

This has created tensions with conservative Iranians, with women often subject to abuse and angry questions over their priorities.

Iran’s hardline parliament has drafted a plan — awaiting final approval — to tighten punishments for violating the laws on clothing, according to domestic media, although many believe the battle to enforce the hijab has already been lost.

A reformed version of the morality police was present at the food court of a Tehran shopping mall last week, asking women to wear headscarves.

Some obeyed, while others defied the police and walked away, leaving their food and drink unfinished. With such civil disobedience continuing and the regime showing few signs of compromise, analysts say the country is now deadlocked.

Iran’s hardline president Ebrahim Raisi said this month that there were no tensions in Iranian society, while the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has praised his government and insisted its hard work would pay off soon.

Such comments underscore the regime’s thinking, while also adding to the disillusionment of pro-reformer forces. “Our experience last year proved to us once again that classic revolutions are over in Iran.

The opposition lacks a charismatic leader or a manifesto,” said a Kurdish activist. “We’re not disappointed because the hardliners cannot go on too long with these current levels of inefficiency, “ referring to the economic hardship and overemphasis on the hijab. “But we’re worried about how a change can happen and at what costs.”

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